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Developing new cancer drugs

Lab equipmentCar manufacturers wouldn’t let you drive a car without first putting it through a range of quality and safety tests. 

It’s the same for potential new cancer drugs - they have to go through a series of rigorous tests before they can be given to patients. 

This process is known as drug development.

Preclinical and translational work

Researchers involved in drug development often talk about ‘preclinical’ and ‘translational’ work. Preclinical simply means the laboratory work that happens before a drug can be taken into clinical trials. It helps scientists answer vital questions like:

  • Is the drug likely to be safe?
  • Will it interact with other treatments?
  • What sorts of doses are needed for it to work best?
  • What is the best way to give the drug? For example, as a tablet, capsule or injection.

Translational work is usually carried out in the laboratory too, but is focussed on bridging the gap between the lab and patients in the clinic. It is often part of the drug development process.

For instance, scientists might want to find out why a particular drug has stopped working in patients by going back to the laboratory and carrying out experiments in cells. They then try to modify the drug or design a new drug that is less likely to stop working.

Translational researchers also investigate how the genetic make-up of a person’s cancer affects how well they respond to a drug. This type of research will help doctors to tailor treatment more effectively to individual patients, improving their chances of survival.

Listen to an audio package about translational research, featuring scientist Professor Caroline Dive, and Dr Sally Burtles from our Drug Development Office:

Our drug development work

A researcher working on drug developmentCancer Research UK’s renowned Drug Development Office manages drug development across the country. It also runs two state-of-the-art facilities dedicated to producing experimental cancer medicines - the Formulation Unit and the Biotherapeutics Development Unit.

And we help to fund some of the world’s leading research on drug development all over the UK.

Our impact

Here are just a few examples of our ground-breaking work in this area:


Our scientists looked at the effects of docetaxel (Taxotere) on cells in the lab to better understand how it kills tumours in the body. 1 Docetaxel is used to treat thousands of people with cancer, including women with breast and ovarian cancer.

New prostate drug

We played a pivotal role in the early development and testing of a promising new drug called abiraterone for aggressive prostate cancer. 2-4

Using yeast to study drugs

Our researchers used yeast cells to study how cancers develop resistance to the anticancer drugs doxorubicin and chlorambucil (Leukeran). 5 Doxorubicin is used to treat a range of cancers, and chlorambucil is given to some people with leukaemia or lymphoma. Understanding how resistance to drugs occurs is vital in helping scientists to develop treatments that avoid this problem.

Treating pancreatic cancer

Our scientists helped discover why pancreatic cancers often fail to respond to a commonly used drug called gemcitabine (Gemzar). 6 Researchers hope to use this knowledge to improve how the drug is used in the future, and to increase survival in this hard-to-treat cancer in the future.

Breast cancer test

In an important step towards more personalised treatment, our scientists discovered that an existing lab test can predict whether breast cancer patients will respond to certain drugs. They found that the test for a particular genetic fault in cancer cells also pinpoints women who are sensitive to epirubicin (Pharmorubicin) and related drugs. 7 This test could enable doctors to give such drugs only to those women who will benefit most from them.

All our work - from research into cancer biology through to clinical trials - would not be possible without the generosity of our supporters.

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  1.  Hill, B., Whelan, R., Shellard, S., McClean, S. & Hosking, L. Differential cytotoxic effects of docetaxel in a range of mammalian tumor cell lines and certain drug resistant sublines in vitro. Invest New Drugs 12, 169-182 (1994). PubMed link
  2.  Chan, F.C.Y. et al. 3- and 4-pyridylalkyl adamantanecarboxylates: inhibitors of human cytochrome P450(17 alpha) (17 alpha-hydroxylase/C17,20-lyase). Potential nonsteroidal agents for the treatment of prostatic cancer. Journal of Medicinal Chemistry 39, 3319-3323 (1996). PubMed link
  3. Potter, G., Barrie, S., Jarman, M. & Rowlands, M. Novel steroidal inhibitors of human cytochrome P45017 alpha (17 alpha-hydroxylase-C17,20-lyase): potential agents for the treatment of prostatic cancer. J Med Chem. 38, 2463-2471 (1995). PubMed link
  4. Rowlands, M. et al. Esters of 3-pyridylacetic acid that combine potent inhibition of 17 alpha-hydroxylase/C17,20-lyase (cytochrome P45017 alpha) with resistance to esterase hydrolysis. J Med Chem 38, 4191-4197 (1995). PubMed link
  5.  Black, S. et al. Expression of human glutathione S-transferases in Saccharomyces cerevisiae confers resistance to the anticancer drugs adriamycin and chlorambucil. Biochem J 268, 309-315 (1990). PubMed link
  6.  Olive, K.P. et al. Inhibition of hedgehog signaling enhances delivery of chemotherapy in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer. Science, 1457-61 (2009). PubMed link
  7.  Bartlett, J.M.S. et al. Chromosome 17 polysomy: a unifying hypothesis underlying benefit from adjuvant anthracyclines. 31st Annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, Abstract 6059 (2008).
  8.  Bartlett, J.M.S. et al. Chromosome 17 polysomy (Ch17) as a predictor of anthracycline response: emerging evidence from the UK NEAT adjuvant breast cancer trial. 31st Annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, Abstract 45 (2008).
Updated: 25 September 2009